Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Summer mackerel

I joke that the Chinese and the Dutch get along so well because they both love good deals. Of course, we don't have the storage space to stockpile things the way extreme couponers do (seriously, most of these people are sick in the head), and besides, I like to think that the key to happiness is moderation in all things. Including moderation, which explains why there's a dead fish in our fridge.

A few days back I came upon a smoked mackerel at a substantially lower price than normal. I'm normally pretty good about sticking to my list of things to get, but in a moment of weakness (I must've been hungry) I put it in my basket, thinking, "Well, there's got to be some recipe online somewhere. And it's cheap and healthy and not on the list of overfished-fish, so yay!" I've been meaning to wean Karel off of salmon, which comes mostly from Norwegian fish farms, but that's only possible if I can create a MasterChef-worthy dish to introduce mackerel with. He's like Anton Ego: "If I don't love it, I don't swallow." When it comes to trying new things, it's double-or-nothing: either he'll love it and want me to make it over and over and over again, or he'll hate it and it'll be years before I can reintroduce him to it.

However, it turned out that finding good recipes for smoked mackerel is a sight more diffcult than I would have thought. Aside from variations on the paté theme, there doesn't seem to be much that you can do with a smoked fish. There are a few decent recipes floating around for fresh mackeral, but fresh mackeral is not smoked mackeral, and in any case they all amounted to the same thing: cook something up and put the fish on top. Mackeral isn't that pretty to look at to begin with--and, given how my mom used to prepare it (chopped into hunks and boiled in soup), it only gets worse.

Fortunately, being a smoked fish, it will last a little longer in our fridge while I dredge through gazillions of recipes for promising eats and not too many weird things. In the mean time, well...I try not to look in our fridge.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

"The world's a better place when it's upside down"

I am not a girly-girl, nor have my jobs encouraged me to be one: when you're running amok in a lab, high heels and expensive silks lose out to the more pragmatic jeans-and-t-shirt. Even so, in high school, a spate of hyperactive oil glands and a small crush on one of the guys (Matt, if you really want to know) encouraged me to venture beyond my geek-bubble and explore the world of prettifying things.

One of the somewhat more daunting things about moving across the pond is how the definitions for things like "cream" and "lotion" change. That "cleansing milk" is very different from "body milk", and that neither of them have a drop of dairy in them. A scrub, thankfully, is still a scrub--that is, if you're talking about the grainy stuff that supposedly exfoliates as it cleans.

Here, a "cream" is a moisturizer for your face, unless it specifies that it's intended for your hands. Trust me when I say that, given the prices of most of these products, you'll only be able to afford to use them on your face. Personally, I've never believed much in Q10-this and regenerate-that, so I stick with the most basic of generic moisturizers. A "lotion" is actually not a lotion as it's known in the US (for those of us who didn't frequent the Clinique counter, anyway), but a toner.

It gets a little more tricky with "cleansing milk" and "body milk". Even though they're both milks, cleansing milk is a cleaner. It doesn't foam up the way products in the US do, and it doesn't make your skin feel tingly and clean. In fact, if it weren't for the fact that it stops my breakouts, I wouldn't even know that it did anything--which is actually what dermatologists recommend in a soap. Body milk, on the other hand, is a moisturizer for the rest of you. Why the obsession with milk? Back in the day, women would soak their skin in milk (their hands, if they could, the rest of them if they could afford it) to get that radiant lush glow of youth.

These days, things are much easier, and a lot safer: belladonna is recognized for the poison it is. White lead is no longer found in makeup. One no longer needs to grind his own lapis lazuli (just as well, because where do you find it?), and the most complicated part of makeup is picking out the right shade of foundation. I sometimes wonder if we've made things too easy--if that might be the reason why beauty magazines would have you think that being gorgeous is a lifestyle more artificial than Splenda: morning and bedtime rituals of washing, moisturizing, toning, and scrubbing; an exfoliation/mask treatment/facial schedule as tight as the op that brought down Bin Laden; for the truly dedicated, a lifestyle that involves no caffeine, sugar, alcohol, fat, carbohydrates, red meat, or for that matter, anything that's not celery. Men purport to like "natural beauty", but one wonders if there ever was such a thing.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Legal Rule (rant)

Immigration is complicated--just the paperwork alone is often enough to snow people under for weeks. "Oh, you didn't get this piece? Well, you'll have to resubmit your entire application, then. It'll mean that you'll be past the deadline? Too bad. Well, I don't care that you didn't get that when you first came in. It's not my fault you didn't check...okay, then, it's not my fault you didn't know." The questions of identity, fitting in, deciding which bits of your own identity to keep, which ones to shed--well, books have been written about that.

But as exasperated as I am with the Dutch authorities (mostly the gemeente; as long as I don't end up in prison I'm pretty sure the INS is more than happy to forget about me), at least I am here legally. I have documents to prove I am who I say I am, and that I can live here. But for a brief time, I was technically in the Netherlands illegally--though we started the process of getting my residence approved before I would have needed a visa, my 90-day grace period ran out before my residence permit arrived. It was a jittery period, if only because I couldn't do anything by myself--and I'm a law-abiding person.

The idea that "the law is the law and if you break it you pay" forms the core of most "dialogues" (I use that word loosely, as most discussions tend to devolve into name-calling and what-all) on the subject of illegal immmigration. But the law isn't black-and-white: many examples in history show plainly that the law can be wrong (Dredd Scott) and lawbreakers (Rosa Parks) can be right. Does anybody who's not a white supremacist disagree with Brown v. Board of Education? People still fight--hell, they'll happily kill others--to bring us back before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal. How many people wouldn't talk their way out of a speeding ticket if they could? Laws are not immutable (see: gay marriage), nor can they encapsulate the full extent of human morality. And that's the point: the law may indeed be the law, but it's not always what's right, or what's good, or what's just--and unfortunately, it takes good people breaking bad laws to make us realize that. If it were as simple as black-and-white, then Nelson Mandela should never have been released, and Ghandi should've gone down in history as a thug. If the law were the law, there would be no Arab Spring.

When you're talking about human lives, it's much more complicated than black-and-white. People hide/cheat/lie about something as mundane as money, for Chrissakes, pretending to spend a lot more or a lot less than what they did, all in the name of preserving something so nebulous as "status". The stakes in immigration are much greater than "just" a bank account: they're families, employers, communities, colleagues. When the stakes are so high, you have to tread carefully, especially given the "shoot first questions later" mentality that pervades most bureaucracies. To lose everything because of a simple misunderstanding is, I would imagine, more gut-wrenching than to lose everything because of something that you actually did(n't) do. To ignore what's just and what's right in the interest of observing the letter of the law does not always better a people or a nation. After all, Hitler had an army of law-abiding model citizens, too.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Happy Ten!

Today marks the day--10 years since we met. Since then, it's been mostly ups, a few downs, but overall, I couldn't imagine a better guy to spend the rest of my life with.

I'll save you the gushy-happily-in-love shpiel, because frankly, there is no gushy-happily-in-love shpiel. Just two people, living and talking and loving and discussing things in bed over breakfast and watching Masterchef with baited breath and manhandling the Tweeb and doing each other's laundry and trying to divine what the other wants for dinner that night. Love really isn't much more than whatever makes these little trivial things worthwhile.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Glass of Milk

I've achieved a certain degree of notoriety amongst Karel's friends, families, and colleagues for my calorically-accomplished baked goods. I only bake about once a month--a combination of laziness (not for the actual baking, but for the cleaning up afterwards) and apathy: I rarely get a chance to eat whatever baked good I make in the manner in which it was intended, which sort of decreases any inclination to make it. Cookies and cupcakes are more fun for me, in that respect--nobody's counting (I hope, anyway) so a few missing probably won't damage Karel's reputation. Much.

Karel's birthday bashes these past three years have been, for me, an orgy of baking. So many cakes, so little time. The trick is timing: icings can be made as early as a few days in advance, depending on which variation on the buttercream theme you're going for, but the cakes need to baked as close to the start of the party as possible. Cream puffs are a perennial favorite--the pate choux isn't very difficult to make, although it's always nerve-wracking to watch the oven as they rise--but they can only be made the day of serving, or else they'll lose that bit of crunch. (You can freeze them and "refresh" them with a brief baking, but there was no way we were getting 60-some puffballs into our freezer)

This year I elected to make cupcakes. The theory was that we'd have a ton of kids over, and cupcakes would be easier in general to handle, as you don't need a plate and a fork. However, since just about everybody canceled at the last moment, we had some 40 cupcakes and some very puzzled Dutch people eyeing them askance, (probably) wondering a) how did I get the icing so pink (food coloring), and b) what went into the icing?

Needless to say, we had leftovers. Lots of leftovers. And to compound to our death-by-excess, one of our friends brought over a far breton. So this morning, when I posted that I had about another day's left of cleaning to do, it was mostly wailing over what to do with all the food. I had to dump some of it, because it couldn't be kept, and freeze others. And then I got to the far.

Never mind that it had the texture and consistency of potting clay--a characteristic of Brittany cakes, and not an actual fault of our friend--when you've been living on snack food for two days, yet another cake becomes more liability than asset. But, well...we didn't like it that much, and it does take up one of our burners, and...At times like this, I like to imagine that even the Dutch would think twice about blurting out the truth.

Up and outta here

Things have been crazy busy here: this past weekend was Karel's yearly birthday-bash which, as usual, turned into a madhouse of baking, cleaning, more baking, and oh-yeah-there-was-a-job-interview somewhere in that mess, as well as a repairman who came by to fix our water heater.

I've got about another day's worth of cleanup to do--not that the mess was that big, but having guests for two days straight means not being able to vaccuum as thoroughly as I need to, which means that my allergies to Noodle have kicked up and, were it not for loratadine, I'd be a lot more miserable than I am now.

Plus, for some reason, this entire month has been raining. I want to get to the kaasboerderij to take some pictures of the place, but it's a twenty-minute bike ride, and not something to idly risk when the clouds are as ominous as they are. So maybe we'll get lucky today or tomorrow.

In the meantime, there are a ton of leftovers that want dealing with, so I'll leave this post at that and wish you all a happy week. Regular post coming at some point soon.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Green Green Green

About two years ago my brother sent me a t-shirt with Woodsy Owl on it, with the words "Give a hoot, don't pollute!" It's a t-shirt that I wear surprisingly often around the house, as it is the perfect "I haven't got any other clean t-shirt" t-shirt. But South Park spoof notwithstanding, it also perfectly illustrates my Green side, mostly because I like to hope that people are smarter than apes, and will not ruin the planet (by which I mean all of the arable land) out of sheer greed and willful ignorance. Tall order, I know. But it makes more sense than believing in God.

The Netherlands were extolled in Jared Diamond's Collapse for their forward-thinking environmental policies, implemented by a top-down model that's only possible after generations and generations of hive-mind living. It's everywhere: the advertisements that link being Green to getting it on, billboards that encourage you to hold on to your trash rather than litter. Dutch culture, being as clean as it is, makes littering one of the easier vices to police. God knows there are more terrible public service announcements than suggesting Green is the new sexy.

Things I like about the Dutch environmental policies:
  • The statiesgeld: the refund you get for bringing in empty bottles. Ten cents for a beer bottle, and 25 cents for a soda bottle. It's so simple: you feed your empty bottle into a machine, and it spits back a receipt telling you how much money you've gotten for your trouble. Then you present the receipt to the cashier, who knocks the amount off your final grocery bill.
  • Bike money: yes, you can actually get an employer to help you pay for your bike, if you use it for commuting to and from your place of work. Policies differ--where I worked in Maastricht, I could get €300 back. Karel basically got his folding bike for free--it's a bit of a hassle to fill out the paperwork, but given how much bikes can cost, it's a pretty good incentive to push pedals.
  • Thrift culture: it's de rigeur to shop at thrift stores, to get furniture off Marktplaats, and just generally not throw anything away that can be patched up and sold off. It's also because if you don't like what's on sale at the Xenos, you're pretty much screwed because everything new looks like that. So thrift stores it is, for people who want things different.
  • Trash cans everywhere: by necessity, they're around to prevent people from littering. And y'know what, they're not in the way and they are regularly emptied and they actually keep people from littering! The NS, on the ends of the intercity train routes, where the trains are at a stop for 15 minutes, has teams of cleaners that go through the train and empty out the trash cans on it. One wonders how this concept has evaded SEPTA.
Things I don't like so much:
  • Why can't I recycle cans anywhere? Plastic bottle recycling drop-offs are common. Paper-and-cardboard recycling day is clearly marked on the special afvalkalender we get every February (one month too late, DAR...), but if I want to recycle a can of soda, I shouldn't have to bring it all the way to the dump.
  • The road tax: the Dutch have one of the most extreme car taxes in Europe. When you buy a car, you pay a 14% tax for pollution, and depending on how big the car is, every month you get dinged for road usage. And that's not even covering the insane cost of gas. My current estimate of gas prices and conversion rates puts it at a hefty $9/gal--and if that's not an incentive to get a Prius, I don't know what is. You might be wondering why I'm complaining about it, since I don't even drive, but the road tax is actually a serious impediment to our even considering getting a car.
I most certainly missed somethings. Possibly many things. What're your favorite or not-so-favorite aspects of going Green in Holland?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Kidney Kitties

Yesterday morning, rather than breakfast, Noodle got ambushed and keel-hauled to the vet's, where he got his teeth cleaned. Dentals are all-day procedures, so we'd also booked a late-afternoon checkup for the Tweeb, with the idea of bringing both cats home at once. Cost was rather--and surprisingly--modest, given that Noodle needed pre-anesthesia blood-work done, and that the Tweeb got some antibiotics (she's been having this weird little cough that makes us worry about heart failure).

One of the things the blood-work revealed is that Noodle is also on the brink of renal failure. His kidney values, while still within the normal ranges, are approaching the point of worry, and falling in the "high normal" range. Right now, the plan is to monitor him, which means keel-hauling him to the vet AGAIN in six months for another blood test.

It's one of the cardinal rules of owning cats, that the ones that need to see the vet most often are the ones that are the most problematic. The Tweeb, for instance, has taken to piddling on me when we put her in her carrier. Noodle just hates his carrier--in fact, he infinitely prefers the vet to his carrier, and I strongly suspect that the only reason they could get him into his carrier yesterday was because he was so strung out on ketamine. Shadow, on the other hand, goes to the vet about once every other year and is as pretty and as perfect as a picture, and always goes in her carrier with a minimum of fuss.

What's so daunting about the prospect of Noodle having to see the vet as often as the Tweeb, then, is not the cost--it's unpleasant, but affordable. It's the emotional toll that comes from dragging a whining, howling cat to the vet and back again. It's figuring out how to outsmart the cats and get them to a place where you can catch them. It's waiting for the vet to call and tell you that the Tweeb is still normal/better/worse than she was the last time. Costs may increase in a linear fashion for every sick or borderline-sick cat, but dread goes up exponentially.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


It's commonly said that the Dutch have no fashion sense. This isn't true. Most people do have an idea that mayhaps the yellow rain boots will clash with the hot-pink feather boa, and to be fair, I like the whole leggings-and-boots look during the winter (practical, and sexy!). However, it only takes one person to perpetuate the stereotype, and that one person belongs to a peculiar class of women who inhabit the C1000 and Witte Reus commercials. Thankfully their real-life counterparts are a smidge less tacky--they are the women who are likely to show up on your doorstep if you hire a housekeeper.

So explains Karel, anyway. I was skeptical at first--after all, who cleans a house wearing a pencil skirt and a full face of make-up? But then I caught an episode of Hoe Schoon is Jouw Huis?. Like most Dutch realtiy TV, HSIJH is less about horror and ridicule and more about empowering the hapless victim/clueless kid. Marja and Liny travel the Netherlands spreading their cleaning magic on downtrodden domiciles, teaching the inhabitants such life-enhancing skills as...wiping electric sockets clean, sterilizing door frames, and scrubbing walls.

Up until now, I thought we did a pretty good job at keeping our place neat and clean, since I'm not sneezing every other minute. Our floors are pretty clean, our litter boxes don't stink, and the closets are reasonably tidy. I dust the furniture and clean the windows as needed, and the colony of dust bunnies under the bed has retreated to the far corner that I can't reach with our vaccuum. But apparently our apartment is still filthy. God forbid that we should have bacteria on our electric sockets.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


For those of you watching the E. coli outbreak unfurl across Europe, it's a grim reminder of just what globalization can mean: shared disease as well as shared profit. Fortunately E. coli is no bubonic plague, but it's frustrating as well because there doesn't seem to be any known source for the outbreak. Unlike the incidents of contaminated spinach/peanut butter in the US, there doesn't seem to be a centralized source for the outbreak, and indeed, right now, there's not even a suspect food to be aware of. It seems to come from produce, but that could mean anything.

What we do know is that this is not your normal, everday E. coli that sits in your gut and plays nice. It's not O157:H7, perhaps the most deadly strain of E. coli known to man, but rather a version of the strain O104 that picked up a nasty trick or two in its evolution. Most worrisome is that multiple news sources (BBC, Guardian) are reporting that it appears to be antibiotic resistant. Germany has started to request blood donations to treat their patients, because apparently that's all that will work.

On Monday news sources were reporting that it was produce from Spain that was problematic, but as of Wednesday Germany was determined to be the source of the outbreak, and today the Nu website is reporting that they finally have "ground zero" for the most severe outbreak, a restaurant in Lubeck where 17 of the 18 dead in Germany ate. And apparently so did the two Americans who came down with symptoms. Lubeck is a popular tourist town, so it wouldn't shock me if that were the source of all of the cases.

In the Netherlands, fortunately, most of the produce is labeled with a country of origin, and very little of it comes from Germany. But you have to remember that, just because the outbreak began in Germany doesn't mean that the infected food was German to begin with. For all we know, it could have come to Europe in a haggis, or made its way in a maggot-cheese.

Eric Schlosser has a scathing commentary about the US food safety recall system in the book Fast Food Nation, and it's interesting to see Europe's response to contaminated food: there is no recall, mostly because there is nothing to recall. Ever since the outbreak was reported, stores have been dumping their potentially-infected produce, and farmers are being forced to raze their crops because they cannot be sold. All this--billions of euros' worth of produce--without any idea of what might be the source? It's nice to know that we're safe. It's still mind-boggling, how much food is being lost.

In spite of all this, I'm not all that worried, frankly. Oh, I'll cut back on fresh salads and cook veggies as a precaution for now, but avoiding the best parts of summer is simply an abomination to me, especially given the Dutch winter diet. It helps to remember, in all this, that merely getting out of bed is a defiance of natural law, and going to the market is a dare. We just don't think of it that way. So I'm not going to let a couple of bugs get me down.

Edit: As of 6 June, evidence is pointing to sprouts as the culprit.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Skinny on the FatBoy

I'm a bit of a meanie in real life: I get a kick out of shocking my mother with seemingly mundane aspects of my life when I call her. Things like having to vaccuum every day, for example, make her positively upset. Explaining how to make yogurt--you let a jar of warm milk sit under a blanket for six hours--makes her inner food-safety inspector positively ill. Perhaps the most fun comes from explaining just what is a boterkoek (cake made with butter, flour, sugar, and a bit of salt) and what goes into the pea soup that Karel makes every winter (lard, lard, bacon, and lard).

Dutch food, in short, is full of the stuff that makes food taste good--and perhaps more importantly, actually triggers your satiety centers, unlike, say, low-fat foods. (I link to the video because it's thought-provoking--it all makes sense, which is a little frightening. It's interesting, that's for sure.) In most other aspects, life in Europe is similar to life in the US: the government is trying to get people to eat more vegetables, while people are steadfastly sticking to their fries. But whereas dietary advice in the US starts with cutting back on fat, in the Netherlands it begins with increasing your veggies.

Ultimately, it's a balance between what you eat and how much you eat, and that's true even for cats. These days Noodle (because not-so-FatBoy is too long a name) is at a healthy weight (just shy of 5.5 kg, or 12 lbs) again, without the use of special diet foods or "indoor" cat diets. Noodle came to us a proper little butterball, tipping the scales at a little over 6 kgs. Losing one pound might not seem like much, but considering that a) this is a cat, who can spend up to 18 hours a day asleep, and b) that he had zero inclination to play and his arthritis was terrible, it's really a marvel that he is the goofball who skitters around with his toy mice these days.

It's worth mentioning this because so many people have fat cats (one of our friends had a cat who died, largely because it was obese) and they don't seem to realize that they can, in fact, do something about it. Noodle, granted, wasn't as badly-off as some, and it was simply a matter of restricting his food intake--same as Shadow's, who weighs 11 lbs on a good day. The health risks for obese pets mostly mirror those for obese humans, but you don't need a general anesthetic to see the dentist.

Life is hard for Noodle: just when he finally becomes active enough to play, he gets put under and taken for a dental.